Pediatric Associates of the NW Blogs

Dr. Spencer Shares His Own Experience with Lead Exposure

Scott Spencer, MD, MPH
September 16, 2016 08:00AM

Dr. Spencer Shares His Own Experience with Lead Exposure

We at Pediatric Associates of the Northwest have been taking parents’ concerns of lead exposure very seriously.  The dangers are real. We know this as healthcare providers and as community members.

As parents and home owners of an old Portland bungalow, my wife and I were particularly concerned about lead. When we moved into our house three years ago, we had an active two- year-old son, and we were expecting our second baby. Researching local information (see resources below), we learned that lead dust on the floor and window sills is often the highest risk for young children, especially those who are crawling. Scraping or sanding old window sills can create lead dust. We had our lead dust tested and fortunately it came back negative. We also tested our water. Our home and family qualified for a free water test kit obtained though the Multnomah County Lead Line (see below for resources). We tested different sinks and faucets and found that water from our kitchen faucet had lead above recommended levels. Fortunately, if we ran the cold water for one minute, it reduced the lead content below concerning levels. But to be safe, we also fitted the faucet with a simple filter from our hardware store made specifically for lead.

This past summer we were excited to get our vegetable garden going – my daughter loves cherry tomatoes! However, we knew from another test from the hardware store that the exterior paint on the house contained lead.  This meant that our soil around the house may be contaminated with lead. We are now in the process of having our soil tested.  But even if the lead comes back high, I learned that most lead contamination of vegetables comes from the lead soil dust that lands on the vegetables.

So, experts recommend the following steps when harvesting vegetables –

1) Teach kids to wash all vegetables before eating

2) Use gloves when picking, and wash hands before eating

3) Peel root crops or remove outer leaves of leafy vegetables

4) Avoid tracking dirt inside the house (see reference below). 

This summer I taught my children these steps. Just a few extra precautions allowed us to enjoy the harvest from our garden.

Now the school year is upon us, and my five-year-old old son is starting kindergarten at our local Portland Public School (PPS). Our school was like many in PPS, which had quite a few positive water lead tests.

Fortunately, I learned all about the lead issue at PPS from Dr. Evans-Smith here at Pediatric Associates of the Northwest (PANW).  She interviewed Dr. Hendrickson from OHSU toxicology who says, “There is more lead in the water in schools than there should be. It is above the action level and Portland Public Schools should fix it.” But he goes on to say that the amount of lead that a child would be exposed to from water at PPS schools is not likely to cause significant health effects – like lower IQ.

Of all the children tested for lead at PPS schools, very few had elevated lead levels. And all of the children with high lead levels were found to have significant exposures in their homes. So it made me feel good as a parent, that I had already protected my children from their highest risk for lead. But as a pediatrician, I know that it is important to test any child who is at risk for lead exposure.

If you are concerned about your children’s risk for lead, we encourage you to get them tested.  Free lead testing is available through Portland Public School and Multnomah County. At Pediatric Associates of the Northwest, we also do lead testing. Please contact us to make an appointment.


1)    Portland housing – Lead Reduction Program 
-    Includes grants for home lead abatement 
2)    Multnomah County Lead Line 
-    Includes free water testing
3)    Portland Housing – Soil testing

Dr. Hendrickson’s interview details:

“People usually get about 70mcg/day of lead exposure per day just eating our regular diet on earth.  The water from contaminated PPS faucets could give an additional 20mcg/day.  If a child drank 1 liter of this water per day, it could raise their lead level by about one point (say from 2 to 3).  While any lead does affect IQ level, this amount of lead is unlikely to cause a significant decrease in IQ.”


Environmental Health Perspectives • volume 121, number 11-12, November-December 2013